Navigational Aids for
Experiments and Trials Conducted in the Middle East
aids helped landing craft accurately locate their target beaches, especially at
night when landmarks were difficult to see. Accurate navigation was vital to
amphibious Combined Operations, otherwise well researched and rehearsed plans
would fall into chaos, with potentially
disastrous consequences for those taking part and those depending on their
author Commander Philip Noel, (1960) VRD RNR.]
This account by Commander, Philip Noel tells of his
involvement in navigational experiments, while based for 5 years at HMS
Saunders, a RN base that was part of the Combined Training Centre, Middle
East at Kabret on Egypt's Little Bitter Lake.
At the end of 1941 there was no global positioning, sat nav, Google
Earth and mobile phones to aid navigation. The recognised methods for locating
predetermined landing beaches was a high-frequency radio beam from equipment known as
‘Lorenz’ and infra-red projectors.
However, both these systems depended on the navigator of the carrier or mother
ship, from which the assault craft were launched, knowing his
position to within a few yards. In the UK, established radar stations for D/F (Direction
Finding) bearings provided the navigator with a
reliable fix off the coasts of Holland, Belgium and Northern France. In any
event, these coastlines had many identifiable features; it was vastly different
in the Middle East with its endless miles of unfamiliar, featureless
The whole of the northern
coast of the Mediterranean was in enemy hands and Rommel was in Africa. Radio
beacons in Egypt and Palestine, which were still in Allied hands, could only
deliver very acute angled radio signals to ships off the African coast and the further the ship
was to the west, the worse the situation became as the angle between the signals
became even more acute. Relying on such narrow angles to pin point a position
was risky and no sensible navigator would guarantee his position by
such means, even in daylight. Amphibious Combined Operations at this time were limited to
landings behind the enemy lines or ‘acquatic hooks'(1)
as they were later called in Italy.
I tried the infra-red equipment
telescope failed to function properly. However, various experiments were carried
out by others, which gave reasonably good results; but the procedure had a major
weakness. The success of an operation, possibly involving many ships
and hundreds if not thousands of men, depended upon an agent gaining the shore
undetected, locating accurately the landing beach, successfully setting up his
equipment and signalling to the approaching vessels. The planners were concerned
about the vulnerability of this technique and, not surprisingly, sought a new
Type 286 Radio
The next development was the Type 286 radar. Flight
Lieutenant, Hunter-Todd of the RAF Experimental Branch and an RNVR radar officer
from Alexandria spent many weeks at Kabret fitting this equipment
in an LCA (Landing Craft Assault) and later in an LCP (Landing
Craft Personnel), using a special aerial
to improve its directional properties. This would
allow the approaching craft to home in on an aircraft IFF
(Identification Friend or
Foe) beacon, modified to be carried by one
man in a collapsible canoe (Folbot). This became known as the ‘Saunders Beacon’.
The inherent vulnerability associated with the Infra-Red beacon remained but
with the advantages of receiving reflections from any coastal features and a
much improved range.
bit of Everything
However, beach-finding still needed more
accuracy and less dependency on agents gaining the shore undetected. Against this background the ‘lots of eggs in one basket’ school
of thought developed an entirely novel approach.
[Opposite; A sketch of HMS Saunders by Herbert
Hastings McWilliams from the vantage point of the base's water-tower. It
was presented to Capt. G I S (George Irwin Sanctuary) More, OBE, RN who
commanded HMS Saunders from June 1942 to December 1944. McWilliams
annotated the sketch "Capt. G.I.S. More with admiration” and under this
“H.M.S. Saunders, Kabrit” Displayed here courtesy of Capt. More's grandson, Henry More. Google Earth coordinates 184.108.40.206 N, 220.127.116.11 E.]
An ML (Motor
Launch), possibly No 360, was fitted with a direction-finding radio (RAF Type
1155) with rotating loop, a modified Type 286 radar, echo-sounding equipment, a
gyro-magnetic compass and ASDIC (Sonar). The rationale was that a couple
of craft so equipped would reliably and accurately lead a flotilla of landing craft to their
target beaches. Where long distances were involved, it was proposed to use a
trawler with taut-wire measuring gear. The same gear, with the exception of
ASDIC, was later fitted in an LCP and was, I believe, the
This was the extent of the development of navigational aids in the Middle East, at Kabret
anyway. Later in the war, the practice of dawn raids was adopted, perhaps partly
because of the difficulties and limitations we identified in producing
navigational aids for beach landings. Who knows?
We were pretty isolated in the Middle East and communications were not what
they are today. I never found out if the results of these early experiments
in the Middle East were passed to our counterparts in the UK. Its entirely
possible that the two theatres were, on many occasions, working
along parallel lines. Anyway, if the work done at Kabret showed the
inadvisability of using the early infra-red equipment in operations, all the
effort was worth while.
My active time in Combined Operations ended on July 1st, 1946, when
HMS Saunders was paid off. By then, I had met and married the lady who was to be my
wife for nearly sixty years. We left Port Said for the UK in SS Dunnottar
Castle on 12th, September, 1946, just over five years from the date I
sailed for Egypt in SS Strathaird. I remained on the books of HMS Roseneath
(beloved of all Combined Ops. personnel) until 30th, January, 1947, when
I was released from active service but not before they had made a real mess of
my final pay settlement!
After the war I returned to the re-established Sussex Division, RNVR, which I
had joined as an Ord Tel in 1938. I got my half stripe in 1951 and my
Destroyer Command qualification a little later. I was promoted Commander in 1960
and placed on the retired list on 21st September, 1968. However, that,
as they say, is another story.
There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be
purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner
checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and
paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions.
There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click
'Books' for more information.
Special thanks to Commander Philip Noel, VRD RNR, for providing the text for
this Webpage. The content and presentation was
approved by the author before publication.
Footnote; (1) "Hook" as in boxing. The term aquatic hook
was used to describe a seaborne landing behind enemy lines.